As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.